BritTheBadger's dazzling Pool Party Leona. source
For many League of Legends players and spectators, cosplay is a perplexing facet of the subculture surrounding the game. To gain a greater insight into the cosplay world, I spoke with Barri Shrager, a frequent veteran cosplayer and part of the staff at CosPix.net that features many brilliant League of Legends cosplayers. We will examine topics from her specific background, motivations and experiences from an average cosplayers' perspective, and finally the overlap between the cosplay and e-sports worlds.
Steel Legion Garen and Lux cosplay at Pax Prime 2013. source
How long have you been cosplaying, and what's your current involvement with the cosplay community?
I've been cosplaying since 2006 when I went to Otakun for the first time in Baltimore, Maryland. A few of my friends at the time just handed me a costume and said that I was going. I tried it and it was really fun so I stuck with it. I started to learn how to sew and put props together, but it wasn't until 2011 that I started really getting into it, focusing on it seriously as a hobby.
As far as involvement, I'm a regular at a lot of the east coast conventions, and I've done a few on the west coast. The one thing I really love about cosplay is the number of people you meet in the community that can teach you new things and ways to make stuff. I'm involved with promotions and graphics design work for a site called cospix.net. We launched at the beginning of this year and are hoping to turn it into the premier cosplay networking site.
What is the best cosplay you've seen and which cosplay are you most proud of?
There are a lot of different materials to make cosplay out of, but there's a new one that's recently gained popularity called Worbla, which is this crazy thermoplastic. It was developed in Germany and not sure what the original use was, but a German cosplayer came on the scene with World of Warcraft builds using this material that I thought were incredible.
The one I'm most proud of personally....right now is probably Sheryl Nome from Macross Frontier. It's the first costume that I really wanted to make as my serious costume. I fell in love with the character when I saw the series and I knew I had to make it. It's a fully boned corset with some extra detailing on it. I had to completely redraft patterns for the top by choosing my materials. The glitter shoes were the final touch and I was really glad it came out that well.
If the opportunity presented itself, would you consider pursuing a career in the cosplay industry because right now it's mostly a hobby for you?
Personally, I don't think being a professional cosplayer is a feasible career. I only know a few people in the western world that use only cosplay as a career. There are opportunities and I know folks that use cosplay to network and find jobs in the industries they want, but only people like Meagan Marie have found their way of converting cosplay into a fully-fledged career. Everyone else in the community has a normal job and even if they cosplay professionally, they have a more stable source of income to supplement it.
Collaboration between Sofia Ajram (cosplay) and Ewa Labak (illustration and concept redesign). Source
The average person in the western world may not see the distinction between cosplay and wearing costumes for events and festivals. I believe that the difference is purpose, where cosplay is emulation of a particular character, while the act of wearing a costume reflects the event it is being worn to. Do you agree with this contrast?
I definitely agree with that observation. It's more an expression of how much you like the character you're trying to portray, and I know people who will work endless hours of trying to replicate even a simple costume. But it's definitely a passionate craft focused around the character rather than just being like "Oh, I'm going to be a sexy nurse for Halloween." There are definitely instances of cosplay being a subset of or being part of a larger event like Renaissance fairs where characters fit the event, and so if the piece you have works in that setting, you can absolutely take it there.
People cosplay for various reasons, from appreciating the process of creating the piece, to enjoying the public attention wearing the piece garners, or purely the innate utility of emulating a character. Do you think most cosplayers fit under one of these categories or is it a combination? Which purpose is the most prevalent in your experience?
Most cosplayers fit under a combination of these categories. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us definitely enjoy the attention our cosplay brings us. Making the piece and wanting to be a character is always the drive, but generally the end goal is to be appreciated for the product you've created or become. I can't tell you exactly, but from my observation in the last 8 years, I definitely think or hope that the prevalent reason is the drive and being innately being interested in the lore and mannerisms of the character, but attention is just the easiest to see as a spectator.
Most people see cosplayers at fan conventions like Comic-Con, Anime Expo, PAX etc. Can you briefly describe these conventions from a cosplayer's perspective especially where cosplayers are a minority?
So, this varies per cosplayer. I personally enjoy going to the events, booths, panels, playing any game demos etc. But then I set time aside for photographers who want to take pictures or the piece or I'll try to find a group of other cosplayers who are part of the same universe my character is in. Mostly though, conventions are a great place for cosplayers to meet up with friends and show or express what we've been working on, using it as an excuse to be with them. It's like a reunion that happens every couple months.
I see the cosplay community as pretty tight-knit, and are usually fans for a long time once they start. What's the turnover rate like for old cosplayers leaving the hobby versus new ones entering the scene and what factors influence that?
I've definitely seen the growth in cosplay numbers recently with the improvements in cosplay technology and better access to materials. Unfortunately, cosplay has also transformed into somewhat of an internet phenomenon and that's introduced members that may not necessarily respect cosplay at its core. That being said, it's put a spotlight on the cosplay community and with that publicity we've seen a great growth in numbers over the past five years.
Going back to people who cosplay in an attempt to gain internet fame, what is the purist attitude towards it?
It's just more an observation because to each his/her own. As a veteran who started before accessibility to materials and internet spotlight, cosplay was a lot more about the costume and how creatively you can make it, while on the moderate budget everyone had to be on. If you look at cosplay pictures before 2008-2009, they were a lot....different, and it was easier to appreciate a well made costume rather than who wears it best. Back then, we were just excited to see others wearing stuff from the shows or media we liked. It feels almost slightly tainted but if you don't really think about it, shouldn't really affect your experience.
What is the relationship between cosplayers and photographers at major events? Do certain photographers gain credibility and trust with cosplayers similarly to journalists for sporting events?
For sure, I think cosplayers and photographers are even closer than journalists because it's such a small community, and there's really no agenda for the photographer other than to display the cosplay at its best, which is exactly what the cosplayer wants as well. Also, the photographers there are equally passionate about the shows and background behind the costumes, and you have a lot to talk about after shoots. I personally consider a lot of the photographers I've met over the years as my friends. On the flip side, there are still some issues with professionalism and you'll hear stories about "Oh I paid for a shoot with this person and he never showed up or refund me money." or something, but usually that's a small minority of experience.
Most events that draw cosplayers also hold competitions to determine the best cosplay. As a veteran cosplayer, what are your thoughts on competitions and what qualities should cosplay be evaluated on?
So I've actually competed in numerous events and have a handful of awards. I'm also friends with those who used to compete a lot more who have now turned to judging and I think it's completely valid as long as it's judged for the right criteria. The two aspects cosplay is judged on within cosplay is the "overall cosplay" which focuses on craftsmanship, materials, and techniques used to emulate the character and "skits and performance" which involves the cosplayer going on stage during a masquerade [like a talent show] and perform a short 1-5 minute skit involving multiple people or solo acts and focuses on how unique it is, how well it's acted and put together, and how well it respected the source material etc. Depending on the convention, the two aspects can be judged separately or together. I'm not a huge fan of the crowd-based cosplay judging because it's more about the audience while serious competitions are focused around the cosplayer.
Naturally there's a range of cosplayers, from those who consider it an art form, to others trying to promote their work and gain attention. The cosplay that gets the most attention sometimes depends on the attractiveness of the cosplayer and how revealing the outfit is. What does the average person in the cosplay community have to say about this objectification?
First addressing the cosplays meant solely for a shoot, we in the cosplay community usually denote them by the 10-foot rule, which means that they look fine from a distance and photograph well, but are unfinished and messy from up close. As the rest, visual appearance is always going to be a factor in cosplay and while realistically you shouldn't judge cosplayers by their physical appearance in the same way that you shouldn't judge people, the more attractive members are just going to garner more attention than those with better or more detailed costumes. A lot of cosplayers get really mad when attractive people compromise the character to make the costume sexy, and it's actually pretty funny. Honestly it usually just feels like jealousy directed towards those who are getting more attention. But like we talked about before, it's about what you want and cosplay is a way to express yourself by either crafting the outfits, emulating a character, or just the attention. I usually just roll my eyes when people take characters like Teemo or Gnar and turn it into a sexy costume, and you can judge them, but they have a right to do it.
I've noticed, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the cosplay community is a lot more developed in asian countries, especially Japan. Can you speak regarding the cultural differences between the regions and why cosplay is so much more prevalent there?
I think it just developed there. Cosplay actually started in the United States at Star Trek conventions, but it was really the Japanese who took the idea and applied it to their love of anime. Culturally, they've accepted the idea and it has a much broader meaning there. For example, if they see someone dressed up as a maid or nurse in a restaurant or hospital, they may refer to it as cosplay. It's very non-specific of a term. The World Cosplay Summit is held every year in Japan and its the culmination of a world competition where every region sends their best team of cosplayers to compete, and from what I understand, Japanese cosplayers have a lot of respect for American cosplayers and are always intrigued by the unique things we can come up with despite our relative inaccessibility to materials and lack of mainstream community.
BrittTheBadger's impeccably crazed Jinx Cosplay. source
Cosplay and League of Legends
The cultural perception of e-sports and cosplay are still developing in the western scene. Do you think the two should form a symbiotic relationship and promote each other, or do you think they are merely separate factions that will coexist next to one another?
I think the industry has seen the potential of working with cosplayers to help them promote the product. One example is the game called Lollipop Chainsaw, where the protagonist is a cute cheerleader and the company actually released a challenge to cosplayers to see who could portray her the best and be their official representative, gaining a lot publicity. A lot of conventions also have cosplayers promoting their stuff, but that reaches a gray area because there's a difference between cosplayers who understand the character, source material and community, compared to a booth babe, who's simply an attractive person dressed up as the character asking you to take pictures and buy the company's stuff. But I love when companies like Riot and Blizzard actively share photos of the cosplayers because it helps both communities. So I do think that there is room for both industries to work together and help one another, but similarly to how companies don't want the cosplayer's personal behavior reflecting poorly on their product, cosplayers don't want companies to use models in costumes and promote that as cosplay.
Games like League of Legends have different skins for characters. What are your thoughts on the idea of including cosplayability as a metric for creating new skins?
I think if the character design is something people want to emulate, cosplay will bring organic marketing to that character and skin, wanting people to invest more money into the game or even that specific piece. Like in Rooster Teeth's show RWBY, the creator definitely caters to cosplayers and in my work with CosPix, I'm actually working to create a database of his source art for people to see and potentially cosplay. That being said, I don't think it should majorly affect the way character design is approached since people will just cosplay good and unique designs and depth, there's no extra factors to make it "cosplayable". A marketing campaign to involve cosplayers to display the skin would be great, but don't think it needs to start at the design.
I read somewhere that cosplay actually influences Japanese fashion. While the basis for cosplay in Japan is anime, I believe that the growth of e-sports like Dota and League of Legends have the potential to have a similar effect in the western world. Do you think that with Riot's emphasis on merchandising next year, they should also focus on providing cosplay materials or clothing fashion inspired by League of Legends characters?
Fashion designers and even me with graphic design, borrow a lot of motifs for shows or games that I really like in my work. But, I can't really comment on the impact it can have here, because there needs to be a catalyst or some sort of awesome translation from cosplay to a different genre of work before something like that catches on as the thing to do. As for merchandising, I know they already make Teemo and Lulu hats that you see a ton of people walking around conventions with just those. For the average fan, cosplay is too much of a hassle to do themselves and if something was more readily available, despite it not being the greatest quality, I think it would be great for the community. There are actually plenty of 3rd party companies and websites that sell pre-assembled costumes or kits already, so I'm not sure if it'd be better for Riot to do it themselves or promote outside businesses.
BrittheBadger's early Janna cosplay. source
There is an incredible community of cosplayers that love League of Legends and are dedicated to their craft. It's an arduous process to design the costume, search for and order a variety of materials and improvise builds, making it extremely rewarding when completed and ready to display at conventions and events. The cosplay community is very tight-knit but always welcoming of newcomers to join their ranks. I wantto thank Barri for taking the time to speak with me and sharing her insight into the cosplay world. I also wanted to highlight some of my favorite cosplays by BritTheBadger and the incredible build by Sofia Ajram and despite not being involved, I'm pretty excited to see their new stuff every time.